By Toby Davis, Neil Maidment and Keith Weir
SHUNNING the flamboyance and individuality that has previously characterised their game, Costa Rica and their collection of nimble attacking talents face Italy on Friday ready to produce another World Cup shock.
The Central American nation were meant to be the sacrificial lambs in Group D but stunned Uruguay 3-1 in their opening game.
In Fortaleza they showed admirable organisation in defence and rapier-like speed on the break, setting themselves apart from previous Costa Rica teams who arrived at World Cups relying more on maverick individual talents.
“In the national team we’ve managed to build ourselves a little bit like Italy in 2006 – a solid defensive group with very good players in attack,” midfielder Celso Borges told Reuters in the run-up to the tournament.
“When we win the ball we counter-attack quickly. We don’t elaborate too much, it’s more like a knockout punch.”
With Joel Campbell, who scored their opening goal against Uruguay, spearheading their frontline, they have a player capable of providing the cutting edge their smash-and-grab approach demands.
Yet it remains to be seen whether they will be able to play in a similar vein against Italy, who will pose a different type of challenge.
Champions in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006, they delivered a reminder of their qualities of organisation and patience in their 2-1 victory over England in the hot and steamy jungle conditions of Manaus.
Cesare Prandelli’s team have a long-established tradition of winning games without looking like world beaters, and are unlikely to attack in the same manner as the more tactically naive Uruguay.
Costa Rica’s victory over Uruguay has also removed the element of surprise and put Italy on their guard against a similar upset.
“The game against Costa Rica is seen as the most dangerous game, because we play at 1pm local time and it will be really difficult,” midfielder Daniele De Rossi said, referring to the likely conditions in the north eastern city of Recife.
“Can we beat Costa Rica? There is no longer a World Cup as it once was, like in Italia 90 when games ended 8-0. Teams are organised, with strong players, and you cannot afford to think Italy will beat Costa Rica just because we are called Italy.”
Since 1998, the erratic French football team has either reached the final or failed to win a game at the World Cup.
So now, after a clinical 3-0 defeat of Honduras, fans of Les Bleus could be daring to dream again as France take on neighbours Switzerland in the second Group E game on Friday.
The dominant display against Honduras on Sunday featured a resurgence of flair and free-flowing football that was non-existent in a disastrous South Africa campaign in 2010.
Four years ago the players mutinied against coach Raymond Domenech and returned home in disgrace. But Didier Deschamps has bult a more unified squad and even though Franck Ribery is out injured, Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and Olivier Giroud offer a dangerous attacking threat.
The Swiss, who grabbed a last-gasp 2-1 win over Ecuador in their first game, are likely to provide a sterner test, especially as the winner on Friday should make the second round.
The Swiss have made great strides in recent years, their prospects boosted by a more exciting crop of players largely playing in Europe’s top leagues, such as hard tackling captain Gokhan Inler and the skilful Xherdan Shaqiri.
Deschamps is unlikely to tinker much with his side. Whoever gets the nod will have an eye on the history books, since the next goal will be France’s 100th at a World Cup.
Haris Seferovic, Switzerland’s hero in the first match after grabbing a 93rd minute winner, said France’s attacking talents could be their downfall.
“There will surely be more space (than versus Ecuador) because the French like to play more. They are strong in attack, but it may be their weakness to want to attack too much,” he said.
Elsewhere today, Honduras and Ecuador, who lost their opening games, chase a vital World Cup victory in a game that will see both coaches plotting the downfall of their former teams.
In an unusual twist, Honduras are led by Luis Fernando Suarez, the man who guided Ecuador to the last 16 in 2006, their best showing at a World Cup.
Ecuador are coached by Reinaldo Rueda, who was in charge of Honduras in their 2010 World Cup campaign when they failed to make it past the first round and did not score a goal.
To add to the feeling of familiarity, both coaches are Colombians.
They will not be able to settle for cancelling each other out as both need to win to maintain a realistic chance of progressing from a group which also includes France and Switzerland.
Although both teams lost on Sunday, they put in contrasting performances.
Striker Enner Valencia put Ecuador in front against Switzerland but they were eventually beaten 2-1 after conceding a stoppage time goal.
Honduras lost 3-0 to France and played for more than half the game with 10 men after English based midfielder Wilson Palacios was sent off.
Coach Rueda said his team had got carried away in the final stages of the Swiss game and paid the price for being naive.
The team got high profile support from President Rafael Correa who said that reaching a third World Cup was an achievement in itself.
“We should be proud of our national team. Luck deserted us on Sunday but let’s not give up hope,” he said.
Honduras, who have never won a game at the World Cup, will look to strikers Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly at least to break a 32-year goal drought.
They have not scored at the finals since they drew 1-1 with Northern Ireland in 1982.